This article first appeared on GalTime.com
By Jessica Ashley
I wasn't exactly excited to see "Mr. Popper's Penguins," but there it was On Demand and an easy pick and better than seeing "Kung Fu Panda 2" again or trying to convince my son "Lil E" that some movie I loved from the 80's really is hilarious.
In a nice turn of "Mommy and Lil E Movie Night" events, Mr. Popper ended up being funnier and sweeter and less slapstick-y than Jim Carrey can annoyingly be. The story was improbable but the penguins were cute and the storyline of an overworked, checked-out dad turning his attentions toward his angry and neglected kids is one we all can get, if even just a little bit.
It didn't have the visual amazement of "The Adventures of Tintin" and it didn't make me laugh out loud like (oh, I admit it) "Despicable Me." But it was good enough. Better than expected.
There's just this one thing.
Jim Carrey and Carla Gugino (who is ridiculously gorgeous in a real and lovely way and should definitely be cast as a leading lady a lot more often) play divorced parents of a teenage girl and tween boy. Without much explanation, it seems that they had been together for many years and were wedged apart by his intense work schedule and inability to tune in to the daily happenings of his family's life and affections.
Over the course of Carrey's character inheriting penguins from his adventurer (and also absentee) father and Gugino's character pursuing her own big research career with a new boyfriend, the two are brought together, not surprisingly "for the sake of the kids."
Of course, you know what happens next. The moments with hands hovering over a sick baby penguin and rushing about to find the angsty teen daughter a perfect dress for a dance and escaping the evil zookeeper in a limousine chase all lead them back to renewed love.
The penguins fulfill the cute-factor. But the parents provide the confusion factor. Why? Because they have to get back together in order for the family to be healed. In order for the family to be a functioning family.
I'm not so naive to think that movies, particularly those geared toward kids, need a predictable arc, a tied-up ending. But as a divorced mama, I see this particular conclusion as more concerning than easy. Or sweet. Or satisfying.
We all grow up with unrealistic ideas of life based on a sparkling scene we see projected in front of us as kids. That enormous screen envelopes us and we believe.
I rushed home from seeing a "Grease" at the drive-in when I was seven, put on my tap shoes and watched myself in the mirror, fully believing I could sing and dance myself into a stunning popularity/red shoes-black leggings transformation. I held on to the scene from "Sixteen Candles" when Samantha Baker and Jake Ryan kiss while sitting cross-legged on the glass dining room table through high school like it was a guarantee that even nice girls have magic moments. I believed I had it in me to be Norma Rae. I was Winona Ryder's character in "Reality Bites."
And so I can’t help but wonder what my son things when he sees silver-screen parents reuniting after fights and heartache and divorce. Does he notice? Does it faze him? Does he ever conjure up his own plans for the ultimate Parent Trap? Does it make him wonder about his own split parents and whether the final scenes will be the three of us holding hands? That part of the script is just about as real as a house-full of arctic-imported penguins at this point.
Lil E and I have had many conversations about what happened -- he comes back to this question at different places in the four years since I packed us up and left the home where we lived, the three of us. In every conversation, no matter whether Lil E is sad or confused or curious or indifferent, I acknowledge: what happened was sad and what happened also led us all to a happier, healthier life.
In our home and world, a kid with divorced parents is normal and OK... and sometimes, the route to a much more loving life than a home full of tension and untruths and arguments and other bad stuff. I couldn't have that for us then and I couldn't ever return to that.
I love that Hollywood has embraced single mom characters and one parent-one child families in movies -- it's one of the reasons I adore "Up" and warmed to "Despicable Me" and wanted Lil E and I to see "Where the Wild Things Are" together. But I am angry that divorced families are also treated as “broken” in so many other kid films and that fixing them is trite and calls for the parents getting back together.
We will always be dealing with divorce in our family. It will always be an undercurrent as Lil E packs up his Daddy Bag for the weekend, navigates time with his other grandparents, watches how his friends' families are, gets to know the Not Boyfriend better, puts the pieces of his own childhood pain and happiness together in therapy or relationships or if he one day becomes a parent, too. But we will deal with it by being honest - sometimes it hurts, mostly it is healthy. We will cope with crayons and little notebooks of lists and books and sometimes just crying into each other's shoulders. We will have tough times in court and driving back and forth between houses and in managing different rules between parents. We will be grateful and prayerful and see the light and love of learning to say goodbye to one life in order to welcome one that fits better.
But we won't ever be getting back together as a family in the way we were. No matter what movies say to my kid or me or any other person watching, that just is not a happy ending.
What movies have helped your kids deal with divorce or your own family situation? Which movies hurt?
Jessica Ashley is a single mama of a Lego-loving Star Wars-fanatic kid. She wears inappropriately high heels to the playground and is author of the blog Sassafrass, recently named one of Babble’s Top 100 Mom Blogs. Jessica is a parenting and healthy living expert who has written for Yahoo! Shine, AOL, ParentsConnect.com, CarePages and many other stops on the Internet.
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